When asked about how he got his start in business, Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, the nation’s second largest mortgage lender, and majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, said it all started at Michigan State University.

Dan Gilbert during a town-hall lecture.

Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, sits with Sanjay Gupta, dean of the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, during a town-hall lecture held at the college. Photo by Alan Piñon

“After graduating from Michigan State I delivered pizza, brokered loans out of a shared office space, and now I am here. That’s my whole life right there,” Gilbert said during a town-hall style lecture for more than 600 students at the Broad College of Business Wednesday night.

His summary was an obvious oversimplification of his career, considering Gilbert’s Rock Ventures portfolio includes more than 110 affiliated companies across the country and employs more than 24,000 people, but much of Gilbert’s philosophy around business seems to center around keeping it simple and authentic. And when it comes to authenticity, Gilbert says having an authentic culture that the employees can buy into and are invested in is key to running a successful business, regardless of the product or industry.

“Culture is not what you do, to me culture defines who you are,” Gilbert said. “When your people know who you are as an organization, whether it’s a college, a football team, or a business, if everyone knows who you are then the decisions they make and their behavior is either in line with who you are or it’s not. And the more people that make more decisions that are in line with who you are, assuming it’s a good culture, then more great things happen.”

Much of the evening’s talk centered on cultivating creativity and innovation within business culture, a topic that is of particular importance to Sanjay Gupta, dean of the Broad College of Business, who also served as emcee for the conversation with Gilbert.

In response to Gupta’s questions, Gilbert took a quote from his book “Isms in Action,” copies of which he handed out to every student in attendance at the lecture. “Innovation is rewarded, execution is worshiped,” Gilbert said. “You have to have a thinking organization and a doing organization, and what we mean by that is that we love ideas, and we encourage creativity, but if you don’t execute, you have an idea that is not worth a lot.” This sentiment, Gupta pointed out, directly related to the college’s mission statement of “creating thinkers and doers who make business happen.”

The night was not all business, though; Gilbert did reveal a few tidbits about his own company that you won’t find in his book, particularly about how “rock” has become a mainstay in many of his business names.

“When we opened up Rock Ventures, I was sitting there with my brother and his friend, we knew we didn’t want to name ourselves something like First Financial this or Something Mutual, so we literally were looking outside and said stick, chair, hey, how about rock, that seems solid,” Gilbert said.

For the students, though, the main messages of the evening with Gilbert were the emphasis on doing what’s right.

“My major takeaway from this talk was when Mr. Gilbert said ‘Do good and do well,’ when talking about the city of Detroit. He highlighted the importance of his company not only needing to do good for the people of Detroit but also doing well in a business sense. He stressed that you need to focus on both social good and profit equally. When you get a chance to listen to a leader like Mr. Gilbert, I realize that there is more than one way to be successful. Every piece of advice he gave was a value-add to my MBA experience,” said Nicholas Hammer (MBA ’16).

Freshman Trevor Joy, who is in Broad’s Entrepreneurship class, agreed that the top take-away from the night was the inspiration they gained from the experience. “His emphasis on passion being the key ingredient for every entrepreneur was very insightful. In order to inspire a team to follow your vision, you need to have passion for your product and love it so much that others will join. Many people overlook passion and only seek monetary value, but Dan talked about how that philosophy will never get you what you want in the long run. With business, passion comes first and monetary gain will follow,” he said.